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Rare Mitchell goal lifts Panthers past Hurricanes

by Kurt Dusterberg

RALEIGH, N.C. -- For more than two periods, the Florida Panthers waited, looking for that one good scoring chance.

When the moment finally materialized, Jonathan Huberdeau was caught off guard to see Willie Mitchell driving the net.

The 38-year-old defenseman one-timed Huberdeau's pass for his first goal of the season, breaking a scoreless tie and lifting the Panthers to a 2-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"I was surprised about it," Huberdeau said. "I knew it was him, but when you're in the play, you don't really care who is there. You just want to make the play. Afterwards, I was happy for him."

Roberto Luongo made 24 saves for the Panthers (17-12-4), who won three of four games on their road trip after opening with a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins last Saturday.

In a game that had few quality scoring chances, Huberdeau curled away from the Carolina defense in the left corner before sending a pass across the slot to Mitchell at the bottom of the right circle.

"No one picked me up, so I just funneled to the back side, and Huberdeau made another great pass like he always does," the Florida captain said. "I don't think the thing hit the ice again, it was right on the stick."

It was Mitchell's first goal since April 2 and ended a 36-game drought.

"It's kind of embarrassing when you go that long and you don't get one, so it felt good to get a game-winner on it," said Mitchell, who has 34 goals in 894 career NHL games, five in 175 games the past three seasons. "Ultimately, that's not my game. If you don't score many, you like to make sure they're big ones."

Luongo wasn't tested much, but his glove was sharp against Ron Hainsey and Andrej Nestrasil in the second period, and he smothered numerous loose pucks in the crease to keep the Hurricanes (12-15-5) away from rebounds. The shutout was the 70th of his NHL career.

"The shutout is a nice little added bonus, but at the end of the day, we're all about the win," Luongo said.

The Panthers were playing one night after a 5-1 win at the New Jersey Devils, making the tightly contested win even more rewarding.

"Defensively, we were pretty strong," defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. "We didn't give up many chances. Our legs weren't the same as last night, but we stuck with it. We have that confidence in the room right now."

The Panthers were sluggish in the first period, matching the Hurricanes with five shots. At that point, the game shaped up as a defensive struggle.

"You never tell your team, 'Let's play defensive hockey tonight.' But there wasn't much in the tank," Florida coach Gerard Gallant said. "The guys were a little bit tired. We just asked the guys to shoot more pucks and get more pucks behind their defense and hope for a good bounce."

Less than two minutes after they gained the lead, the Panthers killed a hooking penalty against Corban Knight.

Florida was sharp down the stretch too. Dmitry Kulikov tied up Carolina forward Kris Versteeg's stick in the slot to thwart a scoring chance with 3:30 left. Then with Cam Ward (16 saves) pulled for an extra attacker, Reilly Smith blocked a slap shot from Justin Faulk.

Smith found the empty net with 21 seconds remaining, extending his goal-scoring streak to four games.

In winning four out of five, the Panthers have relied on a stingy defense, outscoring their opponents 16-3 in the victories.

"The goalies are playing huge for us, and the defense is doing a great job," Gallant said. "The forwards have to chip in and work hard defensively too, so I think we're playing a good defensive game right now and obviously not giving up a whole lot."

The Hurricanes, who had scored 23 goals in their previous five games, lost for the second straight game.

"There wasn't a lot of scoring chances," Carolina coach Bill Peters said. "I know when we reviewed them after the first and second period, it didn't take long. I thought both teams checked well, and they capitalized on a little turnover."

Hurricanes captain Eric Staal agreed that the scoring chances were few and far between.

"Not a lot of looks either way," Staal said. "We just didn't get the bounce to get it done."

Florida forward Jaromir Jagr remained tied with Marcel Dionne for fourth place on the NHL's all-time goals list with 731. Jagr had one shot in his third attempt to move into sole possession of fourth behind Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801) and Brett Hull (741).

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